As per my habit during a sudden onset of writer’s block and a lack of time, I’ve decided to share an article that pretty much encapsulates my view of a given topic – in this case, the future of the United State’s prominent global status.
Charle’s Kenny, a writer in Foreign Policy who maintains a weekly column known as The Optimist, recently wrote a brief but well-argued article arguing in favor of America’s downgrade from its role as the world’s sole superpower, to something basically akin to the “great power” status that defines most wealthy developed nations, such as the UK and France. Indeed, he’s not the first to tackle this issue, as there has been relentless over the last several years, expressed by people all political persuasions, concerning the US’s inevitable, if not already occurring, decline on the world stage. Even casual conversations among colleagues, friends, and coworkers seems to confirm this rather ubiquitous perception.
Generally, this argument emerges in a rather despairing and even fearful way. America may become less stable, less wealthy, and less capable of defending itself. Our political system will continue to break down and even worsen this demise, and our society will remain polarized, cynical, and struggling, feeding a vicious cycle for decades to come. But barring these concerns and predictions – which are a whole other discussion – the argument is centered entirely on our status on the international stage, rather than the domestic one.
Indeed, as Kenny argues, it is precisely these concerns that should further motivate us to decouple from our entrenched presence in the world and focus more inwardly on addressing the many issues that ails us. The less time, money, and political energy is expended abroad – often with little return in value – the more we resources we can invest into our crumbling infrastructural, dysfunctional public education system, and weakening economy (among many other things). Among his prescriptions:
Perhaps Washington could take a baby step or two toward scaling back its global commitments by returning the defense budget to its Reagan-era average, a move that would save about $250 billion a year. Surely what was good enough for a world riven by the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact had 249 combat divisions and we lived in constant threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon, is also good enough for the United States today — at a time when al Qaeda apparently has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. And it really would be a baby step: Even with a $250 billion cut, the United States would still outspend China about four times over.
Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans’ minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care. After all, of the large economies that enjoyed a AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s last week, the United States ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of life expectancy, and it was the only country without universal health care. Perhaps America could also spend a little more on basic education; the United States was at the tail end of the AAA club when it came to believing basic scientific truths like evolution, and it scored lowest out of all those countries on international tests of students’ math skills.
Granted, while many conservatives or libertarians among you – who probably also support a tone-down global presence – might still chaff at the idea of America putting all the saved money into other “big government” ventures, the argument is still sound: we’re better off squabbling about how to spend all this public money here and our nations’ future, than we are watching it go to waste on overseas ventures that not only amount to very little for all their worth, but in many cases backfire as far as making new enemies or fraying current alliances. Furthermore, the Pentagon is no less wasteful with it’s money than any other state institution, as a recent article (also from Foreign Policy) reports.
On the hand, many humanitarian-minded folks, myself included, might not feel too keen about reverting back to an isolationist stance either. The US is a rich and powerful country, with ample private and public resources, as well as a dynamic system of innovation and scientific achievement. All this could still do a lot of good in the world, and even an America called away from much of the glob will still maintain all these advantages. I think it stands to reason that the US need not find the choice between a ubiquitous global presence and a desire to address global problems to be mutually exclusively. Today’s globalized and internationally-oriented world provides plenty of capacity for even small but well-oriented nations to do their part.
Canada is a major contributor to UN Peacekeeping operations for example, while the Scandinavian nations are among the most generous donors of international aid. Norway in particular makes for a good case study on the virtues of maintaining this balance: a restrained global presence, as far as toning down diplomatic and military muscle, but ample involvement in aid projects, conflict resolution, scientific funding for cures, and other global public goods. Sure a country of far greater size, wealth, and resources as the US could manage the same, given a proper re-balancing and re-orientation of direction.
Historical precedence also paints a favorable picture. Many of the wealthiest and most successful nations today – many of which outperform the US in many respects – were formerly great powers. Countries such as the UK, France, Germany, and Japan actually became more rich, stable, and prosperous following their downgrades after World War II (though the last two certainly present a slightly different scenario, given the benefit of US aid and a relatively benign post-war occupation). Most developed nations with high-standards of living were hardly ever global powers to begin with, but have still managed to reach and maintain prosperity. The US, given the comparative advantage of being able to plan ahead and redistribute greater resources, would stand to gain a lot more than it’s predecessors and peers.
Of course, there are several problems here. One concerns greed: many American business elites benefit from the US tossing it’s weight around the world, opening up markets and promoting US-friendly policies abroad (indeed, the nexus between money, lobbies, and foreign policy is underrated but long-standing). It’d be difficult to imagine influential economic interests conceding to losing the comparative advantage brought to them by their nation’s considerable diplomatic influence.
There is also the issue of psychology. While many Americans of all political stripes seem to want a drawn-down on overseas bases and operations, there seems to be an ambivalence about completely giving up our cherished and unique status as a hegemonic “hyperpower.” There is much glory and pride to be had as a nation that can call the shots and pursue it’s interests around the world when needed. For many Americans, it’s a projection of manifest destiny and a by-product of American exceptionalism. Indeed, I’ve found the case for insularity and isolationism to often be presented in ambiguous terms, suggesting to me that most people have a love-hate relationship with America’s preeminent status in the world.
Furthermore, a lot of people see a global presence as crucial to maintaining national security. Our navy keeps shipping lanes open and stops pirates; our regional bases keep rogue states that are in close proximity in check; and our omnipresent diplomatic and intelligence community keeps constant vigilance on threats across the world as they emerge. A similar argument has also been made about how many of the countries that have prospered since last century – including prior great powers – had in fact done so thanks to the US taking up the mantle of “defender of the free world.” To this day, it’s argued that many wealthy states benefit from America’s stronger military forces keeping the peace, and thus facilitating trade and economic growth. They also save plenty of money they’d otherwise be spending on their own military and national security apparatuses (Japan, where we have one of the strongest presences, is an oft-cited example).
All these credible arguments aside, I still believe the US could feasibility and beneficially, for itself and the world, phase itself out of being a major power. Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming increasingly multi-polar, as much of the rest of the planet begins to catch up on our level of development. Similarly, many other rich and developed states are contending with a sense of decline, mostly due to ageing populations and a general weariness of our increasingly complex world. The US could still be a great leader and admirable example. We could start to work more from within the very international system we largely shaped, rather than despite it. We could set the example for successful and responsible leadership by drawing down our global ambitions, improving our society and economy, and thus strengthening our capacity to help the world through international directives and public-private partnerships.
All this will be easier said than done of course. But in the course of inevitable the change, we gain nothing from stubbornly refusing to face reality. Better to start a dialogue and begin to plan for what’s bound to come, rather than cling to power with futility, ignoring the benefit of historical precedence. It’s for our own good as much as the world’s.